If you want to help Charlotte children to become successful adults, should you get rid of ineffective teachers? Identify possible drop-outs in first grade? Or concentrate on building character?
All were ideas discussed by speakers at an Education Summit that drew more than 400 people to Friendship Missionary Baptist Church Wednesday. The session was sponsored by Communities in Schools, a national dropout prevention group with a local office, and Grad Nation, a national coalition seeking to boost graduation rates to 90 percent.
The event began with a session at UNCC Center City for about 80 eighth-graders from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, who talked with professionals and college representatives about options for life after high school.
“This age group of students was chosen because they will be going to high school next year, and it is such a huge transition year where many students struggle,” said May Johnston, Communities in Schools community relations director.
At the main gathering, Sarah Abraham, a researcher with Harvard University’s Lab for Economic Applications and Policy, talked about an upward mobility study showing that Charlotte offers few opportunities for poor children to move up the income scale.
Abraham said better schools offer one of the best hopes to break that pattern. She pointed to data indicating that the best way to boost long-range results for low-income kids is to replace the bottom 5 percent of teachers, as measured by “value-added” ratings generated by student test scores, with more effective teachers.
Geoff Sanderson, associate superintendent of Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, talked about research his district did to document what many teachers know: Students as young as first grade can be identified as high risks for dropping out, based on absenteeism, behavior problems and academic struggles. Sanderson said the school system is still working on ways to make use of that data.
Character traits matter
Keynote speaker Paul Tough argued that many American education efforts are misguided, focusing too much on the kind of intelligence measured by IQ tests and academic skills measured by exams. Tough, author of “ How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Role of Character,” said character traits such as optimism, zest and persistence are better tools for adult success.
Children have two key chances to develop those skills, he said. The first is early childhood, where loving, nurturing parents are the “secret weapon” for healthier, happier lives.
The second is adolescence, when young people begin to think about who they are and how they approach life. That’s where outside adults can play a crucial role, he said.
While too much childhood stress leads to lifelong problems, Tough said too little challenge can also leave young adults unprepared for the hurdles of independent life. Many affluent children would benefit from an education that’s less about test prep and college admission and more about tackling challenges and learning to cope with failure, he said.
A Communities in Schools staffer asked the obvious question: “How do we measure the value of character education in an increasingly data-driven culture?”
Tough said that’s a common question with no easy answer. But he noted that KIPP Infinity, a Harlem charter school, uses a character report card, rating each student quarterly on optimism, zest, grit, curiosity, social intelligence, gratitude and self-control.
The summit’s goal is to spark a long-term community plan to support schools and other services for students and families. In the short run, Eric Hall, president of Communities in Schools of North Carolina, urged participants to lobby public officials for better teacher pay and more early education, do volunteer work and show support for educators.
“Go out and do great things,” Hall said.
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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